Billionaire’s Party Wins Czech Regional Vote, Beats Premier

  • ANO wins nine out of 13 regions, Social Democrats win two
  • Premier Sobotka, Minister Babis see no impact on government

The party of Czech billionaire Finance Minister Andrej Babis secured a victory in regional elections, beating Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka’s Social Democrats in a signal of how the country’s main political forces match up before a parliamentary ballot next year.

Babis’s ANO party won the most votes in nine out of 13 regions, while Social Democrats finished first in two regions, according to results from more than 99 percent of polling stations published by the Czech Statistics Office on Saturday. The Christian Democrats, also a member of the three-party ruling coalition, and an opposition alliance of local mayors won one region each.

The result for the five-year-old ANO is a boost for Babis, the second-richest person in the Czech Republic, who is pledging to root out corruption and cut state debt. It was a setback for the Social Democrats, whose agenda focuses on higher welfare spending and raising wages, as they were defending the leadership posts in 11 regions after dominating the vote four years ago. While the new leadership constellations will be decided in coalition talks, both Sobotka and Babis said there will be no impact on government cooperation.

“Of course we expected a better outcome,” Jan Hamacek, Social Democrat deputy chairman and parliamentary speaker, said on public television. The result “appears to be a combination of lower turnout and some dissatisfaction that’s still persisting in the society that Andrej Babis seems to be better at tapping into.”

For the story on turbulent coalition relations, click here.

While coalition partners, Babis and Sobotka are also political rivals and openly disagree over the state’s role in the economy. Their ruling coalition has been shaken by infighting over conflict-of-interest rules, spending on wages of state workers and pensions, the tax code and the leadership of organized-crime police. Despite the bickering, the two leaders agreed to reverse an austerity drive imposed by the previous administration, fueling a recovery from a recession and fostering a record budget surplus this year.

ANO is leading in opinion polls with about a year to go before general elections, and Babis is the most popular party leader. He owns assets in chemical and food industries as well as the largest mainstream newspaper. A former Communist-era trade official with a fortune of at least $2.2 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index, Babis has fought off conflict-of-interest allegations since joining politics. He says he isn’t running his empire, which includes 250 companies and employs 34,000 people in 18 countries.

“There have been negative campaigns against me since I entered politics, so I’m glad to see that people don’t believe them,” Babis said after the vote. “We want regions without corruption. That’s our main goal.”

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